Pauline Holdstock
11 May 2004

Outside the itself-constructed discourse on post-colonialism and the deconstruction of hierarchies, on situatedness and incommensurability, there is a whole fabric, a living network just trying to make connections, just trying to get along. A network – Jah rule – of i and i. It’s dark. Take your life in your hands to cross this narrow ribbon of street where the traffic flies. Your children with you, your life’s blood, exulting in this frolic with death, tickled to have burst the neat stitching of their Canadian seams. Friday. Off to Oistins to the fish fry on this precipitate Caribbean night that dropped like a fire-curtain over the sunset while you were in the shower getting sand out of your hair. Off to eat dinner under the stars with the islanders. Who know how to live. But first to get there. Narrow (no escape!), walled (monkeys behind that one) road and a single-file-only sidewalk perilous with heaved up slabs and broken curbs, rusty sign poles to ding you in the head while you’re watching your feet. Don’t step off. It’s a game of hazard. Dicing with Mr. D. ... Jitneys passing every few minutes, souped-up mini-vans swerving close to scoop you if you want to be scooped. You do, you do. You can’t stand the tension. Wave one down. Better than being hit by it. Number fourteen. Fourteen inside too - passengers – at least. No. Too many! Your voice competing with the sound system while the conductor hauls your youngest in. Too many? He is incredulous. How many you? Six? Yes, man. Is room. Get in. GET IN! Oh you obedient white people clambering in over legs and thighs. Excuse me. Excuse me. Twenty of you now, not counting the crew of two, crammed in this steel capsule hell-bent on the fish market.

The onslaught of headlights in rapid succession flares in your consciousness. Eidetic: “applied to an image that revives an optical impression with hallucinatory clearness.” This pot-holed street is two-way. The only way your driver can negotiate the blind corners and maximise on fares is with unyielding nerve. You have to laugh at the speed. Sometimes your mate and the other taller passengers hit their heads on the roof. Why it’s padded with deep blue vinyl quilting. Painted with silver stars. You’re not sure where the rest of your party are. Too tightly-packed to turn. Cramp already. The driver stops for two more fares, British tourists, then – time to give up all neuroses – another three. I’m going to lose my kneecap on that door handle. Your voice addressed to no-one in particular has found a higher register. A voice as sweet and melting as rum-cake replies. Don’ worry, dahlin’. You got another one.

Pauline Holdstock writes novels, short fiction, essays and book reviews. Her Mortal Distractions is published by Thistledown press, Saskatoon, Canada, in 2004

Flying the dark street, horn bellowing, West Indian beat blasting. Padded roof a plus if you roll over. Hot wind through the open window. Foreign smell of coconut oil, eucalyptus. Your daughter further back causing comment among the other passengers, muffled laughter but still super-polite. You smell nice. She’s asphyxiating everyone with her hair products, her own foreign smells. Then the road suddenly wider, lights appearing, a space station after an intrepid odyssey. A bright little mall on one side, coconut palms and the dark sea on the other. Unfold your limbs, unpack your wedged bodies and step out into the velvety blacker-than-black. Soft boom of waves on the beach. A Kentish accent from your childhood. Ta-ta, then, love. Look after them knees.

Early next morning I take a walk along the newly washed sand and think about that voice that summoned the accents of home, my uncle’s voice mixing with the traffic and the sea and the chorus of peepers – the tiny tree frogs that thrive in the coleus. My uncle has lived all his life in the same gritty English town, taken his holidays in the same quiet county. He left the country once, on active service to France in 1940 It seemed to finish him for ‘abroad’, as shrapnel might, lodged in you like a stubborn memory. What would he have made of the cheerful hodge-podge in the jitney? He would have loved it. Marvellous, really, the way these people get along. Does it matter that he won’t know their easy hospitality, tropical night air, turquoise sea, the rattle of palm fronds? I don’t know. Is it range of experience, or depth, for which we will give thanks at the end of our lives. Perhaps my uncle has gained more from his Sikh neighbours than he ever could have from a visit to the Punjab. I shan’t have known many things: the sides of Mount Kilimanjaro, the noise of Cairo, the land ocean of the Gobi desert. For someone who believes the planet is hers to love, honour and cherish for the duration of her life, I shall have seen precious little of it when I die.

And ‘seen’ is the word. What I’m doing here in the West Indies, on this Windward Isle, is mainly seeing with, once in a while a little bit of knowing thrown in. I’ve stopped at the water’s edge where the fizzing surf performs a vanishing act. Through the soles of my feet I can feel each faceted crystal of sand grinding against every other under pressure of my weight. My heels can hear the minute squeaking and scratching. And I know this water, this sand, as I know my own skin. Time to dive in.

You’ve avoided ending as road-kill, you’ve survived the bus and reached the haven, both park and boat-yard, on the other side of the road. Catch your breath in the warm wind that blows straight from Africa, pouring across the dark sea (night-time all the way) to sweep up the beach and bend these skinny palms.

Tall fishing boats with flaking paint loom out of the darkness, tilt drunkenly on rusted oil drums. Faded blue, pale pink. Ghosts of themselves at sea. Underfoot, creeping grass with roots like flattened centipedes in the sand. Palm fronds rustling above. Air in motion riding the boats. The palm trunks bowed to match the stems of the fishing boats. Same graceful curve. Out to sea the darkness splits repeatedly here, there, to horizontal flashes of foam. It folds them into itself. In and under, swallowing moonlight. Your party navigates the boatyard like its own regatta. Can’t wait to get out of the picturesque peeling pathos. Give them a living crowd.

Through the covered fish market first at high speed, stepping over snaking red rubber hoses. You try to take in the stalls (seeing, seeing!). Red-tiled holding tanks filled with crushed ice for each vendor’s fish. Buckets of fish heads. Stacks of newspapers. Reek of guts. Handsome slick-bodied fish: marlin, swordfish, dolphin-fish they assure you is not dolphin, tuna. Small flying fish interleaved in mounds. Ocean of plenty. To buy by the dozen. Nonchalant expertise and precision of the filleting. Tiny skeletal systems flicked out entire with the tip of a blade. The rest of your party has vanished now. Drawn like bees to the heaving hive of where it’s at, the music, the bars and the barbecues in the open area where the lights are brighter. Oh, the exchange of money. It’s what life’s about: stuff to buy. Stalls there selling coconut bead chokers, shell necklaces, anklets, sarongs, wallets, T-shirts, beer, french fries. And fish, remember? We came here for dinner, remember?

Part rave, part fairground, the blacktop hosts a self-generating party. Kids dancing to a bone-blasting beat from a two big speakers. A DJ mixing hip-hop, dub. Country music wailing from the bars. Stick a Banks beer in your hand and enter the enchanted circle of naked light bulbs strung on the wooden food stalls around the parking lot; Chez Daniel, Albert’s Chicken Hut. Albert’s whole family in there, two sons, wife, Grandma peeling onions at the back. The lit tableau repeated many times: Pattie’s Pantry, The Fish Bucket, Sammy ‘N’ Tammy’s. These are the side-shows to the main event, the great flaring barbecues of the fish fry itself. Drifts of light grey smoke, acrid and appetizing gust across from the open fires. Your eyes sting. You’ve gone deaf and it’s OK. Elaborate cross-currents in the air, a mingling of sound and smell, onions, fish, tobacco, spatter, laughter, hiss, guitar chords, charcoal, sweat, after-shave, bass beat, beer. On the ground, the crowd’s own pattern of swirls and eddies round the long line-ups inching toward the fires. Hook your family onto one like a segment of tape-worm. You can’t see the beginning but since it’s the longest it must – this surely a universal truth – lead to the hottest fire, the tastiest fish.

Aquamarine. Every morning the sea makes an offer I can’t refuse. Only two other purposeful Northern types this morning. One walker, one swimmer. Out here in their own private oneness with the universe. The cool-warm water is scrupulously regulated by sun and wind to maintain the perfect swimming temperature. The steeply shelving beach creates a trough with a strong swell just behind the line of breakers. To swim its length it is to be cradled in a rhythm that lifts, that lets fall. The sea knows Zen!

Along the beach a power boat has washed ashore. I let a wave carry me in and walk over to take a closer look. The boat must have lain there all night, filling with sand and water, her bow driven into the sand bank left by the turning tide, canopy snapped off by the surf. “Hungover” painted on her hull. I go down the sea again. When I look back to check the location of the boat, two men have already arrived. They scratch their heads and kick at the gunwale as if it’s a tire.

Swim back. In a little while the fruit seller will come by the beach-front apartments, balancing her impossible load of fresh produce on her head. How to rid the mind of stereotypes when they come walking up the beach? She carries a machete and will peel and slice a pineapple with it. She works there where she stands, holding and twirling the pineapple with one hand, taking off the bossed skin with deft strokes. She carves a triangular prism down round the flesh and the conical spines come out in one neat spiral. We’ll eat the fruit later outside on the patio with a flurry of little birds hoping for a taste.

In Western consciousness, shaped by news broadcasts, the machete, the Collins it’s called here, is always a weapon. I begin to wonder how the world might change if pineapple preparation were reported on the news instead of the hacking off of limbs. The fellow outside the supermarket uses a machete to thwack off the end of a coconut so that thirsty shoppers can purchase a drink for a few cents. He’s there every day with his sack of coconuts, his bicycle and the growing pile of vegetative waste at the kerb. It can’t provide much of a living but he doesn’t seem unduly stressed by the fact. The lad who works the beach makes more. He carries aloe leaves and empty mickies in a nylon British Airways flight bag circa 1960. He seeks out the new arrivals turning – though they don’t know it yet – bright pink from over-zealous sun-bathing. A bottle of fresh aloe for fifteen dollars. It’s a done deal as soon as his target discovers the flash of vermilion on the thigh, the hectic fuschia on the shoulder. He splits a leaf and scrapes the viscous jelly out. Aloe leaves were designed by God to funnel their juices neatly into the narrow necks of empty Mount Gay rum bottles. The plants grow freely, vigorously at the back of the beach and since the empty bottles are free the lad must be making one hundred percent on every sale. He’ll stay to tell a few unlikely stories on the lines of being flown to London by the Body Shop; he’ll offer to apply the product if you fall into the right demographic.

It’s the women among the vendors who show more signs of stress. Everywhere there is beach life there are market stalls with racks of brightly coloured skirts and sarongs blowing out against the blue. The competition lends a coercive edge to the women’s sales pitch. Perhaps it’s the urgency of the mother who must go home after a day of these dallying, shilly-shallying tourists to find dinner for a houseful of children, to get their school shirts washed and dried, bleached shell-white and crisp for the next day. And we’re dithering over the mauve or the red. If I was in their shoes, knowing the price of an air fare, I’d soon lose patience. Oh for the dear Lord’s sake why you don’t just give me a twenty and stop maulin’ me clothes.

You’ve inched nearer the barbecue and it looks like a good one. Three men wearing tank tops and bandannas work over fierce grills to sear the fish. Three women serve it on paper plates with rice and peas. The fires flare constantly and you can feel the heat from way back. This is no barbecue. It’s a conflagration. Smoke rises from the spitting oils. A chalkboard: Kingfish, FlyingFish, Tuna. Every trestle table jammed shoulder to shoulder with tourists and locals. Foreign accents spiking the Bajun lilt. Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow. A few Aussies. A few Canadians. The odd German.The line stalls. You’ve finished your beer. Send your fifteen-year old off for more. You’re bonding with your young over alcohol. No one here without a chilled beer in hand, except those with rum. This is a fairground, we the entertainment. Three middle-aged white women in front of you with a bottle of Malibu and three paper cups. Near the end of their stay, with limbs not white at all but medium brown. They make you want to stop going to the convent to write, start prowling. Muscular tanned arms and coarse bottle-bleached hair. One in a sarong, another in shorts and halter top with her hair in corn rows, thick veins purpling the backs of her knees. The third, the queen, in a short turquoise dress. Luvvly colour. Jus’ like the sea . A tight sheath, horizontally creased, with spaghetti straps and a slit up the back. She’s wearing it with stiletto sandals, a rhinestone strap across the toe. Yes, you’d like to be the queen. Cougars, whispers your daughter in awe, and you achieve a rare communion.

The women place their order and you’re next. A fluster of decisions, a crescendo of flame and hiss from the grill. From sea to grill to plate. You can’t do this at home. Find a space at a table. Cram in. Your seared kingfish flakes and falls apart under your plastic fork. Just like an ad. Hot, hot, hot. Tender. You have become a family of wolves.

The women are at the next table. Finished already. The one in shorts splits away from the group. Starts to dance in front of the line-up, cradling her plastic cup. Dances herself further off, distancing herself in pretended self-absorption. To show how her hips move. Hoping to catch an admiring glance, or better, a lustful one. Spur some hapless male to groan under his breath, make a move. Her eyes flick up – just flick – scan the scene quickly to see who’s looking. But it’s only your scruffy family, mesmerised.

There’s a moment after the swim. The sun is warm but not hot enough to burn. The beach is still empty. I belong to this air this sea this sky this sand. This day of my life belongs to me. Before the family’s needs – and my own – kick in, there is a hiatus, the moment of lack. Monks submit themselves to long and arduous training for this.

‘You like to swim.’ As if I’ve conjured him , a Rastafarian with dreads to the middle of his back is squatting on his heels beside me.

‘Yes, I love to swim. It’s a connection.’ It’s all the hint he needs. ‘You a vegetarian, right? Yoga? You know yoga.’ We have a fine conversation about body and soul and then he moves off a little way to do his sun salutations and stand on his head.

When I go inside for breakfast my husband laughs. Says I am merely the conduit to our eldest daughter. You think she’s gone unnoticed out there? Well, of course he might be right. But I’d still like to think we made a connection and it wasn’t about sex, or ganja. And perhaps I should allow the dancing woman last night a little latitude. Perhaps she was just at home in the music. Just being. Like the middle-aged man with a portable CD player. He set it up near the bars, put on Stand By Your Man and began to dance. He was in his fifties and wore brown slacks, mustard shirt with a long collar, and a grey tweed cap. He danced by himself soliciting partners from the small crowd that quickly gathered. A woman in a yellow dress joined him, beaming. They danced hip to hip in a tight ballroom embrace. They might have known each other forever. The spectators made a close circle, barely gave them room to move.

Time to leave the table to the next in line. Cruise the scene. The bars filling up for the night. Mad Michaelz Watering Hole. Flimsy wooden clapboard. Would fly to Kansas in a hurricane, no problem. The Glass Bottom. This one is larger, a dance hall. Stools at narrow counters round the open sides. Patrons settling in for the evening, getting primed. Some of them there already. Johnny Cash has commandeered the night. The floor in the centre crowded with swaying bodies. Outside, on the side facing the ocean, older men at card tables, deaf to the whumping and the pumping and the twang from inside, smack dominoes down with conviction. They have their own crowd around them, intent on the game. Oblivious to noise and jostle. Oblivious to appetite. Could be on an empty beach under the palm trees, or under the bread-fruit tree on the corner of the village cross road. Oblivious to you, too. Live advertisement for over-consumption that you are, you don’t exist.

You could stay a little longer, go into the bar, have (yet) another beer. But it’s their home turf, their territory. You’d be a blot, a blight with your greedy eyes touring the room. You head back through the boat yard, under the flaking hulls. The wind picks up the music and sweeps it inland. It’s already distant. You flag down a jitney. Room to breathe in this one. Sit up front. Check the speed. Needle at zero, flips to sixty and back again over bumps. You’ll be home too soon. You want the salt wind again and the black sea. Stop the driver ahead of time. Get out to walk the rest of the way on the beach. Ignore the protests of dissenters. Soft crash of waves on your left. Bright foam flowering and melting away. And something moving. Everything moving. The sand everywhere alive with a phantom scuttling. Your daughters indulge in girly shrieking as long-legged crabs appear and vanish back down their tunnels. You see more and more as your eyes adjust to the dark. They are everywhere, these ghost crabs. You are a walking incursion, giants in Lilliput wreaking havoc and doom. Self-induced hysteria – on both sides. The crabs vanish noiselessly into their tunnels while you pass in a raucous din.

I swim on and off throughout the day, Afternoons are busiest. More people on the beach, more activity in the water, though not much of it involves swimming. It’s prime time. I like the crowds further along where the surf is strong enough to take you up the beach on a boogie board, not quite high enough for surfers to take your head off. In the big hotel at the back they’re setting up a bandstand and firework display for Saint Patrick’s day. I’m doing nothing much at all. Just floating in a little piece of reclaimed day. Just being. I’ve been thinking about all this booze. We’re awash in it here. Can polish off a bottle of rum in no time. When we go back we’ll try to replicate the sundown drink with our cherished duty-free. It won’t work. Rum and coke here on the beach while the sand turns to pink and the palms darken is pure nectar. But it’s baguette and cheese in France, sardines and tomatoes in Spain. It doesn’t travel. Just as well. We would all be in rehab in no time.

In this land of sugar cane, alcohol is promoted tirelessly and shamelessly. Peddled to visitors and residents alike: in elegant displays of Malibu and Mount Gay in Cave Shepherd’s shiny downtown store and without ceremony in all the little bars, the sugar shacks that operate on so many street corners out of town. White clapboard shops with a front that lifts up to form an awning, these bars don’t have a sign outside. They are the sign, appropriated lock, stock and barrel by Banks beer whose logo – the black silhouette of a dancing rastaman – gesticulates exuberantly across their entire exteriors, sometimes extending over the roof. (My mother used to keep a beaming black mammy on the kitchen wall – a plaster Aunt Jemima figure with a notepad for an apron. She was a far cry from the fruit vendor who, for whatever reason, has not cracked a smile yet. The dancing rasta is just as far removed from the old fellows who sit inside these bars watching cricket on TV or filling the air with the companionable click of dominoes while they drink.) Alcohol is conspicuous at every major event from the Test Match to the harvest festival of Cropover. It’s touted by all the hotels and clubs who try to ensure by their promotions – all drinks a dollar on Tuesdays; twenty dollars ‘membership’ on Wednesday and drink all night for free – that you’ll get yourself hammered on every night of the week.

A couple wade into the sea close by and stand waist deep talking. A young Brit and a Barbadian girl. She’s wearing a brand new bikini in a shiny metallic fabric, pale blue. Perhaps she brought it expressly for this. He’s talking to her in a way that’s both eager and tentative at the same time. Courting! That was a mating dance last night. This is courting. Polite, attentive. He hasn’t entered her world yet. He talks to her from a vast distance. Choosing his words with deliberate care as if she speaks another language, he is explaining carefully, about St. Patrick’s Day. ‘Do you know what that is? In our country, well, not in my country but in Ireland, over there, the people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day because St. Patrick is their patron saint. Over there.’ She smiles. ‘Oh, I see.’ Not far from the beach, McBride’s pub has been advertising St. Patrick’s Night for the last ten days. He nods towards the breakers. ‘Swim, then?’ – and ploughs in. She hangs back, flinching at the splashes, meticulously timid. He calls to her. ‘Come on out here. Do as you’re told.’ He makes a point of laughing straight away, a little too soon, just to be sure she’ll know it’s a joke. And she laughs back, a little too loud, so he’ll know she has a sense of humour.

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